The Consular Affairs office at the State Department has once again demonstrated its commitment to the status quo there. Though she was billed as an “agent of change,” Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty has made two key Iraq-related personnel moves that do nothing but reinforce the status quo: naming a former top deputy of “courtesy culture” pioneer Mary Ryan (Harty’s predecessor who was pushed out last summer) to a high-level State Department task force, and choosing a consular chief for the new Baghdad embassy a woman with close ties to Saudi Arabia.
Harty was a controversial nominee for the top spot at Consular Affairs (CA), which oversees embassies, consulates, and visa issuance, because of the disastrous record of Mary Ryan, under whose watch all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists received legal visas — at least 15 of which would not have been issued if the law had simply been followed. Ryan’s tenure was further marred by a refusal, post-9/11, to tighten visa procedures — particularly in Saudi Arabia, where Visa Express (which allowed Saudis to apply for visas at travel agencies) remained open for ten months after the terrorist attacks. It was in that context that State sold Harty as an “agent of change” who would fix the mess at CA. The tactic worked: The Senate confirmed her at the end of the lame-duck session last November.
To convince Congress that change was underway, State cleaned house at CA, pushing out four of the top five executives, in a matter of weeks, last summer. One of those booted was Georgia Rogers, who shared Mary Ryan’s beliefs in lax visa policies and warm relations with Saudi Arabia.
But now she’s back.
In every major crisis situation, such as the current war in Iraq, the State Department convenes a task force with representatives from all affected bureaus. Serving on the task force is both prestigious and crucial for national security. Harty has picked Rogers to represent CA — even though she wasn’t even deemed good enough to keep her job last summer. If Rogers was sore about her abrupt departure, though, her compensation package for the current position should soothe any hard feelings. According to a State Department official, Rogers is receiving pay for the task force on top of her retirement income. A different official at State estimates that Rogers is making more than $200,000 in total annual salary and benefits while serving on the task force.
Demonstrating that the Rogers incident is not isolated, Harty this week also tapped Beth Payne — who one senior CA official says “enjoys a cozy relationship with the Saudis” — to take over the consular section at the new Baghdad embassy. What qualifies Payne to land such a plum post is unclear. For the last two years, she has sat at the Saudi desk at the Office of Children’s Issues (OCI), which is primarily responsible for ensuring the return of American children abducted to foreign lands; her record is dismal. The CA press office notes that two children since October 2001 have been returned from Saudi Arabia “with Departmental assistance,” but several of the parents of abducted children and a senior CA official agree that Payne played no substantial role in the safe return of any American kids trapped in Saudi Arabia.
Visas to the U.S. will likely not be granted from the Baghdad embassy too quickly after the war, but the determination about the appropriate time to do so will in large part be made by the consular chief there. For a long time after the smoke clears in Baghdad, security will be a major concern, particularly with respect to Baathists or even al Qaeda-related terrorists who may try to gain entry to the United States. Having the likes of Payne there means we’re relying on exactly the wrong instincts. That’s not good news for our border security.
Of course, even with her latest moves, Maura Harty is not worse than her predecessor or many other top officials currently at State. But she certainly is no “agent of change.”
— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist.